It Takes a Village A Look At Manhattan's Greenwich Village

Say the name "Greenwich Village," and immediately images of quiet, leafy streets lined with brownstones, or beret-clad bohemians drinking coffee and discussing art come to mind. The Village is one of New York's most famous and recognizable neighborhoods, and for the last two centuries, it's been a hotbed of cultural and social activity.

The Early Days

In the early 16th century, prior to the arrival of Europeans, the marshy land that is now known as Greenwich Village was called Sapokanikan by the Native Americans who lived there. By the middle part of the 1600s, the Dutch were firmly ensconced in the region, renaming it Noortwyck and using it for pastures and croplands. When the English took control of Niew Amsterdam in 1664, what had been a rather remote settlement became a tiny township called Grin'wich.

Throughout the American Revolution, Grin'wich held its own as a quiet proto-suburb, largely removed from the action. When the war ended, Village-dwellers established a thriving network of produce markets on the West Side, all along the Hudson. The area enjoyed an era of pastoral prosperity until outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever drove thousands of people out of what was then considered the "inner city" - and what is now Lower Manhattan. Between 1825 and 1840, the population of Greenwich Village quadrupled, and what had once been marshy farmland began to resemble the rest of the city.

By the mid-1800s, wealthy landowners and businesspeople began making their homes along Broadway and around Washington Square Park at the terminus of 5th Avenue. Stately townhouses of red brick and brownstone began to replace the temporary housing that had been erected for those fleeing the plagues of preceding decades, and the area became a haven for high society. The final flourish that sealed the Village's cache as a desirable, fashionable place to call home was the construction of Stanford White's triumphal arch in the plaza of Washington Square Park in 1892, commemorating George Washington's inauguration a century before.

Changing Cultural Tides

For the first half of the 19th century, the Village was dense with cultural institutions, schools, houses of worship, and fanciful architecture. New York University was founded in 1836, and the school in turn attracted more intellectuals, political activists, artists, and their patrons and appreciators.

Toward the end of the 1800s, however, the character of the area began to shift somewhat as waves of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants poured into the area. European newcomers were finding work in the warehouses and industrial concerns along the river, and their need for inexpensive housing prompted shrewd landlords to divvy up larger homes into tiny apartments, or to convert their buildings into boarding houses. High-density row-houses and tenements became the order of the day, and as the immigrant population soared, a substantial number of gentry took their business elsewhere. By the turn of the 20th century, property values in the Village were nothing to write home about.

In a way, however, the less-than-glamorous image of the Village in the early 1900s opened the door to the most well-remembered era in the neighborhood's history. Low rents and ethnic and cultural diversity made the area very attractive to struggling artists, writers, and radicals, who moved into tiny studio apartments, frequented local coffee shops and pubs, and pursued their work with fervor.

Between the turn of the last century and the Great Depression, the Village enjoyed a buzz of artistic productivity; experimental theater thrived, poets and authors would discuss their pursuits in open-air cafes, and well-to-do uptowners would venture down into the neighborhood to slum a little, or to toss back a few drinks at one of the local speakeasies.

Of course, with attention from the wealthy, the Village began another upward climb toward "respectability" and, ultimately, unaffordability for the usually-penniless artists and philosophers who'd been there for so many years. By the time the Beat poets had their day in the 1950s, the area had become something of a tourist destination, and many of the old-guard purists were put off by their neighborhood's sudden popularity.

Poetry and Pride

Gentrification aside, no account of Greenwich Village's long history would be complete without some mention of two of the movements that shaped the neighborhood's image and reality more than any others; Beat poetry and gay rights. Both had their genesis within blocks of each other, and both have made their way into the history books as major 20th century cultural markers.

The Beats - personified in poet-authors like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg - made the Village their stomping grounds in the early 1950s, with galleries and performance spaces all along Eighth and Bleeker Streets. Free-form jazz performances spilled out of coffee houses, conceptual performance artists staged "happenings" in makeshift theater spaces, and the atmosphere was one of creative possibility.

As the Beat movement was winding down, another cultural shift was brewing in the heart of the Village; a gay enclave had formed on and around Christopher Street, and included a small, unassuming nightclub called the Stonewall Inn. On a summer night in 1969, a police raid on the club turned violent when patrons retaliated against the municipal bullying, sparking three days of brick-throwing riots in the neighborhood and heralding the birth of the nationwide movement for gay and lesbian rights that continues to this day.

The Village's role as a headquarters for revolutionaries doesn't stop at poets and sexual minorities, however; the area was also a focal point for anti-Vietnam protests and rallies in the 1970s, as well as the epicenter for the crusade against HIV/AIDS when the plague was first identified in the early 80s.

Hold On to the Old

Given Greenwich Village's rich history, it should be no surprise that a strong sense of preservation has long saturated the neighborhood. Over the last 50 years, Village residents have successfully thwarted city and private developers' plans to demolish historic buildings in favor of new high-rise construction, develop park areas, and even carve a major traffic artery through the center of Washington Square Park. In 1969, the city designated a contiguous Greenwich Village Historic District, and permanently protected more than 2,000 separate structures from being torn down for new development. Today, various preservation groups are lobbying for the salvation of the 10th Avenue elevated rail and large portions of the far West Village. Preservation initiatives are regularly introduced to the city council, and as more and more city governors and residents recognize the value of the Village's unique look and charm, more and more of the area is spared the wrecking ball.

Billion-Dollar Bohemia

And that value is substantial; because of zoning laws designed to preserve the Village's low-lying, human-scale appeal, there really isn't a great deal of new development going on currently. The far West Side and the Meatpacking District are seeing some new residential high-rises and conversions, but for the most part, the area is perpetually in the grip of high demand and limited supply.

That scarcity, combined with the cultural appeal and overall desirability of the Village conspire to make property here some of the most valuable in the city.

"[Village properties] hold their value," says Edward Ferris, vice president of William B. May Company's Village branch. "What's coming onto the market and getting offers are selling for as high as they've ever sold, if not higher."

Audrey Nevitsky, a broker with Charles H. Greenthal who specializes in Village properties, concurs; "People really like the Village "“ it's the last to get hurt in hard times, and the first to go up in value, so [buying property there] is a really good investment. There's not much [available] there, but it holds its value."

Ferris continues, "There's a limited amount of space available, and they're not really building much new space, so there tends to be a waiting list of people who want either large, 3-bedroom lofts where they can have their kids be close to all the great public and private schools, or people looking for a one-bedroom because [the neighborhood] is just so cool."

Coolness and convenience do cost, though; if you're buying in the Village, studios and small one-bedrooms (and in this neighborhood, small means small - about 400 to 450 square feet for a studio, according to Ferris) range from around $175,000 to a whopping $900,000, two-bedrooms average between $550,000 and $1.3 million, and if you're billeting a family, expect it to set you back at least $900,000, and possibly as much as $5 million, depending on the level of luxury you insist upon. Entire townhouses - not that there are that many to be had - range between $2.6 million and $14 million, according to a recent price-chart that appeared in New York magazine.

"Prices are very high in the West Village," says Nevitsky. "Probably higher than anywhere else, except maybe Central Park facing the park. They're exorbitant in the West Village "“ it's a very popular area."

"The neighborhood has attracted people who appreciate it for its distinction over the years," says Ferris, "And the Village has just naturally turned into a neighborhood where people with money want to be - and often, people with money tend to be celebrities, or well-known people in the arts."

Putting Down Roots

For all it's radical, rabble-rousing past and regular celebrity-spottings, the Village is becoming more and more of a family-oriented neighborhood, with a preponderance of baby carriages and more young families moving in daily to take advantage of the excellent schools, community centers, and proximity to cultural venues. There's also the great sense of comfort and hominess that comes from living in a neighborhood with cobblestone streets, lots of trees, and a sense of community.

The Village's charm has multiple facets, says Ferris. "There's less density here than you deal with on the sidewalks of midtown and uptown, there's"¦ more openness, more sky, fewer people on the sidewalk - it's just smaller. It's maintained an insular feeling, to the point that you almost don't feel that you're in New York anymore - you see the same people every day. It's so neighborly, and there aren't so many tourists in the far West"

And that's why, according to Ferris, "[The Village] has changed a lot. It's become more of a neighborhood for families and people looking to settle and send their kids to really good schools - you see a lot more baby-carriages than you did in the past, and less transience. With [so many] families looking to stay, it's created more of a permanent environment that we've seen in the past."

Changes in the West

As with any Manhattan neighborhood you could name, every available, undeveloped square foot in the Village eventually attracts the attention of developers. Such is the case with the far West Village, from Washington Street to the Hudson River. What little new construction and development going on at the moment is focused on that side of the neighborhood.

"Two of the most significant additions to the neighborhood would be the two new buildings designed by Richard Meier on Perry Street and the West Side Highway," says Ferris. "They're glass towers that don't really fit the neighborhood, but nonetheless sold for fortunes to major celebrities. That went up about a year and a half ago, and sold out immediately [even as] raw spaces."

Nevitsky agrees. "We think that in the next ten years or so, that area along the West Side Highway is going to start looking like Miami Beach "“ that's how much is going on. People who've lived there for years can't believe the amount of activity going on in such a small area."

"So much work has been done on the West Side Highway park past Hudson Street," Nevitsky continues. "People are really liking that, because of the great dog-run there, they can just walk over and hang out. It's become very popular since the city got involved and started redoing the area."

A few other new residential buildings have sprung up on the West Side Highway, and a new condo building is currently underway on Charles Street. While the Meier towers may not be in keeping with the old-Village demeanor, a new low-rise building at 637 Hudson on the corner of Horatio Street has made a point of blending with its surroundings. "It's a great building," says Ferris. "It looks like it's been there forever, and really fits the character of the neighborhood."

And character is what the Village has banked on for more than two centuries now. From its early days as a haven from the perils and pains of the burgeoning city, to its incarnation as a focal point for the arts, to its current role as tourist destination, historic district, and nesting ground for celebrities, Wall Street luminaries, and young families, the Village has maintained its one-of-a-kind charm and held fast to the core of its appeal: the feel of a small town transplanted to the heart of a very big city.

Hannah Fons is The Cooperator's Associate Editor.

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